Should historians judge the past based on the standards of the present? That’s the question rattling around Twitter these days, as historians fend off arguments that it’s anachronistic to bring present-day norms like “slavery is bad” and “sexism is harmful” to assessments of the past. And while there is certainly some merit to the idea that the past must be judged on its own terms, in practice, this argument both misreads history and risks discrediting a key reason history remains an important and useful discipline — namely, that it can inform questions relevant to us today.
And this isn’t just a fight about history. It’s about politics. In an era when pundits are making their reputation on “politically-incorrect” defenses of the West — and the European male power structure it was built on — these fights about history and values are an extension of the battles over who should rule and who should be ruled, and the nature of power, privilege and oppression.
Take, for instance, efforts by Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and historian, to untangle the myths of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation, pointing out that Lincoln was slow to move on emancipation and favored the mass deportation of former slaves. He was upbraided for “moralizing the past,” and in response pointed out that “slavery is wrong” is not just a judgment of the present — the Founders knew slavery was wrong, so wrong that they sought an end to their “enslavement” by the British.
Or go back further, to ancient Athens. Last week I pointed out on Twitter that “Athens, the ‘cradle of democracy,’ built egalitarianism for its citizens on slavery, misogyny, and exclusion of foreigners.” In classical studies, this is an uncontroversial point, borne out by mountains of evidence. Then Nassim Nicholas Taleb — best-selling author most recently of “Skin in the Game” — weighed in, accusing me of “anachronistic bigoteering.”
Taleb has lately made a reputation as a sort of amateur classicist, or at least a truculent critic of professional classicists. Last year, he accused eminent scholar Mary Beard of peddling politically correct “bulls—.”
Aiming to shift the argument onto grounds of political correctness — the same move attempted on Cobb and others — explains why a battle between a renowned classicist and an amateur one is a newsworthy, and profoundly political, fight. Others who amplified Taleb’s comment on my tweet, like those who bemoan the supposed takeover of academic history by social justice or political correctness movements, claim to be concerned with preserving the “Great Texts” as they are, and getting at the “truth” of past societies on their own terms.
This dispute over presentism thus represents part of the pushback against the academy and its purported left-wing orientation, a pushback exemplified by the so-called “intellectual dark web.” This counter-movement gets the practice and purpose of history wrong, and not just because it’s perfectly happy to be presentist when selectively praising aspects of the past, like the Athenian invention of democracy. The reality of history — and a fair standard for judging it — is far more complex than these new opponents of academic history would admit.
Classical Athenians are removed from us by some 24 centuries, and we can’t expect them to espouse the same ideals as we do. Women didn’t get the vote in the U.S., for example, until less than a century ago, so we can hardly call the Athenians misogynistic by the standards of their own day simply for not allowing women to vote. Furthermore, since all Greeks, and many other pre-modern societies, were slave-owning and xenophobic toward others, it would be unfair and inaccurate to mark Athenians as especially immoral in comparison to their contemporaries.
But one of the reasons — if not the reason — to study history, is to better understand the human condition and shed light on questions of contemporary relevance. And what happened in Athens more than two millennia ago tells us something about both the origins and the current constitution of democracy. Athenian innovations in collective self-government really were outliers in their time and have influenced our own political theories a great deal (though not as much as we might think). But to understand the Athenians and democracy fully, we have to look at the whole picture, including those areas in which they fell short.
In reality, the Athenians did rely on slavery, misogyny and repression of non-Athenians even more than other Greeks did, and even more than Athenians themselves had before they became a democracy. One of the crucial steps toward a democratic Athens, in fact, was the elimination of the debt-slavery of Athenians to other Athenians. While this made even the poorest Athenians more free, it led directly to an increase in true chattel slavery of non-Athenians, since landowners still sought cheap sources of labor.
As the franchise expanded over the course of the next century, and Athenians participated more and more in the everyday running of the state, slavery actually increased. Someone had to do the work while the Athenians were engaging in collective self-government.
As the benefits of Athenian citizenship increased, so too did the desire to guard that citizenship and ensure that only “proper” Athenians — that is, legitimate offspring fathered by citizen husbands — were enfranchised. Thus, native-born Athenian women were closely guarded and had their activities curtailed to prevent them from having children out of wedlock or cheating on their husbands and thus polluting the citizen pool. Likewise, resident aliens in Athens, called “metics,” had virtually no path to naturalization, so jealously did the Athenians guard their democratic citizenship. Finally, since democracy and its trappings can be expensive, especially when the poor were offered pay for sitting on juries and other civic duties, the franchise for Athenians went hand-in-hand with the ruthless exploitation of other Greeks in the form of the Athenian Empire.
More freedom for Athenians made more oppression for others a financial necessity.
So even by the standards of its own day, Athenian democracy was an outlier in terms of slavery, misogyny and oppression of others. And since the classics are now often co-opted by groups like the alt-right to bolster an inaccurate picture of the “West” and to encourage chauvinism, it’s more important than ever for scholars to get the classics right, and convey that reality to as wide an audience as possible.
By recognizing these facts — and they are facts, not seriously in dispute by any ancient historian — we can ask important questions of our own society. For example, is our own freedom and franchise dependent on the exploitation of others, either an underclass at home or poorly-paid workers abroad?
To quote an oft-repeated phrase of fans of the intellectual dark web, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” So those promoting a feel-good version of democracy’s origins should look at the classics — and all history and literature — honestly, instead of clinging to romantic and inaccurate fantasies of a spotless “Western Civilization.”